Throughout the pandemic, the Tories have been allowed to get away with murder, thanks to the lack of a fighting opposition. Rather than going on the offensive against Boris Johnson and his reckless government, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer has thrown his energy into attacking left-wingers inside his own party.
The release of the EHRC report into antisemitism opened up the floodgates for a vicious assault on the Labour left. Beginning with the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, this attack soon widened out to include any rank-and-file member who offered support and solidarity to the former Labour leader.
Local parties have, in effect, been gagged by the right-wing leadership. General secretary David Evans has sent out a series of diktats banning democratic discussion and debate, in an attempt to silence grassroots members. And anyone found in breach of these decrees has been duly punished – suspended from the party just for voicing their opinion and utilising their most elementary democratic rights.
Shift to the right
This purge of left-wing members intensified in the run-up to the so-called ‘festive’ season. Leading left activists such as Alan Gibbons – the (former) secretary of Liverpool Walton CLP and a member of the Momentum NCG [National Coordinating Group] – are amongst those singled out by the party bureaucracy.
In a Kafkaesque twist, like many others, Alan was not even told of the reason for his suspension. “You have to guess,” Alan stated, speaking to us before the winter holidays. “I mean, the biggest scandal is you're not given reasons when they administratively suspend you.”
Despite this ambiguity, however, Alan was certain of the real reason behind the suspension of himself and other left-wingers. “You look at the figures across the party who have been suspended,” Alan noted, “and they are the most prominent activists on the Labour left.”
“It's part of a strategy to shift the Labour Party to the right...an attempt to make it easier for the new leadership to shift the whole balance of the party...to make it much less radical; much less attached to its working class and socialist roots.”
Elsewhere on Merseyside, Liverpool Riverside activist Audrey White has also been suspended as part of the witch-hunt against the left.
“I believe I have been targeted as one of the strongest voices on Merseyside,” Audrey told us. “I was seen as the person who tried the hardest to get an MP in Riverside who represented the people there. My issue with Louise Ellman [the former Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside] was always about her politics, nothing else."
As an activist in Riverside, Audrey had been targeted in an article in the Jewish Chronicle (JC). However, after taking her case to IPSO [the Independent Press Standards Organisation], the JC piece was found to have five claims without any foundation.
“We defeat this with strong and sustained solidarity for all those under attack,” Audrey stated, talking about the battle ahead.
“We mustn't be intimidated into accepting any injustice. Never have the attitude of 'choose your battles' and let injustice off. If you lose, you can always live with yourself afterwards. However, you might win important victories, as I did at Lady at Lord John. You have to fight wherever you stand.”
Audrey’s remarks refer to the battle she fought in 1983, when she was sacked for complaining about the sexual harassment of workers she managed. The subsequent dispute – which included a highly successful picket of the shop in question – led to Audrey's reinstatement, as well as a change in the law on sexual harassment.
This battle was celebrated by the TUC in 2017, as one of 150 stories over 150 years of labour movement history that helped build the trade unions.
Fight for party democracy
Alan was also upbeat about the prospects for fighting back against the right wing and their purge. Despite the suspensions and resignations, the balance of forces is clearly shifting in favour of the left.
As Alan highlighted: “That wave of solidarity that occurred in the CLPs – something like 25 percent of motions were in constituencies that had supported Keir Starmer [in the Labour leadership contest], which is interesting.”
Importantly, Alan emphasised, the fight against the witch-hunt must be linked to a wider struggle for party democracy, to put members in control.
“The next stage is looking for those things that will change the party,” Alan stressed. “We've got to win [CLP] AGMs. We’ve got to get our members selected as delegates for conference. We've got to prioritise motions to democratise the party.”
“One idea is to go for an elected general secretary, and to consider campaigning for democratisation of the party machine,” Alan added, referring to an initiative launched by Momentum.
Alan correctly explained how the question of party democracy is not a secondary matter. The current attack by the right wing is precisely the consequence of the left leaders’ failure to bring in sweeping democratic changes – such as open selection – during the Corbyn era.
“What we should really be discussing very actively is the undemocratic nature of the NEC,” Alan continued. “You've got thirty nine seats. Only nine of them represent the mass membership. And there's got to be a serious debate about making the leading organisation of the party responsive to the members.”
“It wasn't rhetoric to say we need a member-led party. And we didn't do enough in the Corbyn years – nowhere near enough. It was a major setback.
“For example, we didn't get open selection through. And we didn't fail to get it through because of an inbuilt majority. We failed to get it through because political concessions were made, which I don't believe should have been.”
Save Our Socialists
One of the notable developments prompted by the right wing’s attacks, however, is that grassroots activists have been forced to get organised. Across the country, left-wing CLP officers are beginning to link up and fight back.
As part of this, the ‘Save Our Socialists’ (SOS) campaign was launched back in December, in response to the wave of suspensions that saw Alan and other local leading lefts excluded from the party.
We caught up with one of the organisers of the SOS campaign, who asked to remain anonymous, out of fear of also being targeted by the party bureaucracy.
“It’s a crazy position that we have been put in,” the SOS comrade stated, “but we need to all try and stay and fight where we can!”
The comrade explained how SOS are attempting to help those suspended, offering them legal guidance and publicising their stories online. “The only help that the Labour Party provides to suspended members,” they noted, “is to call the Samaritans!”
“We want people to recognise that those who are being suspended are great people who have given a lot to the Labour Party and are held in high esteem by many members,” the comrade added.
The SOS spokesperson was equally unequivocal about the political motivation behind the purge: “We believe that what is happening is a direct attack on socialism in the Labour Party.”
“We don’t think it matters who is behind the attack – it’s a broad attack on the left. They [the right wing] want power and control, in order to move away from the grassroots member-led democracy. And we need to ensure that, where possible, that doesn’t happen.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that was long fought for and has been traditionally upheld by the Labour Party, including in our party meetings. The right to freedom of expression is not only about the right to speak but it is also about the right to listen to others and for different views to be heard. Party members should have the right to express their views.”
Like Alan and Audrey, the SOS comrades are also optimistic about the possibilities going forwards. “We don’t see [these attacks] as an existential threat,” they stated, “but more a challenge to which we can rise!”
“In fact, I believe that the left of the party is more organised than ever. For example, Save Our Socialists took less than 24 hours from the time the seed was planted until the big launch on 15 December, at 8.30pm.”
“Our immediate aims are to get suspended officers reinstated and the guidance from the general secretary withdrawn,” the comrade from the SOS campaign continued. But these short-term goals, they explained, are only the beginning of the fight for a bigger transformation of the Labour Party into a genuine social movement.
“Going forward we want to do more local organising, to build up power in our communities and embed the Labour Party in struggles for the things that matter – such as workers’ rights, better living conditions, and peace and social justice: the things that should matter to every Labour Party member.”
Alan Gibbons aptly summarised the mood amongst grassroots activists – a mood of determination, to take on Starmer and the right wing, and reclaim the Labour Party for its members, and for the wider working class.
“The comrades across the country are the absolute backbone of activism in the Labour Party. So it's absolutely wrong to do this [purge the left].”
“You know, we're not going away. We’re going to be back in the party in our numbers – and we're going to be organising.”
It is clear, therefore, that the Labour civil war is not going to be dying down any time soon. The right wing are digging their heels in, and are set on expunging the left from the party, in order to make it a ‘safe pair of hands’ for big business. But on the other side, the left-wing mass membership is getting organised and fighting back.
The only way to resolve this deadlock is by putting power in the hands of ordinary members. This means campaigning for an immediate recall conference, where the rank and file can democratically remove the right wing and take back control of the party.
We call on all our readers and supporters to join us in this struggle. The right wing have thrown down the gauntlet. As the Save Our Socialists comrade stated: It is time for us to rise to the challenge.
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